Mersey Sound Poets: The Sounds of a New Era

“If I decide to be indecisive, that’s my decision,” is a famous quote from one of the most prominent poets of the Mersey Sound era, Roger McGough. Since the vast majority of the poets from this era were very close friends and performed their works together as opening acts for many famous artists, such as Led Zeppelin and the Beatles, several of McGough’s colleagues would have spoken this quip if he hadn’t. Many of the poems that McGough and his fellow poets wrote reflect this attitude of ironic humor, looking at the world through a new lens, and self-deprecation. McGough, Patten, and Henri epitomize the style of this era by presenting pop culture with poetry that describes real life and what it entails.

The style of this era could be described in many ways, but the best way to sum it up is to say that it’s about redefining what people think of when they see the word “poetry”; it’s about changing perceptions from academic analyses, historical research, and Shakespearean sonnets to writing about the lives of everyday people. Some of the strategies implemented in achieving this goal include not adhering a rigid, set structure or its components, using imagery to paint scenes from life that most people can envision, and elaborating on these images with allusions and euphemisms. An example of imagery can be found in Adrian Henri’s “Tonight at Noon;” “World War I generals will sell poppies on the street on November 11th/The first daffodils of autumn will appear/When the leaves fall upwards to the trees” Although these qualities can be found in other eras of poetry, this specific time period takes advantage of them in ways that weren’t previously thought of. Many examples of these literary devices can be found throughout all of the works of these poets but especially in “Defying Gravity” by Roger McGough, “In the Dark” by Brian Patten, and “Poem in Memoriam of T.S. Eliot” by Adrian Henri.

McGough’s “Defying Gravity” fit this style by utilizing a first-person point of view, not including a rhyme scheme and expanding on the imagery of yo-yos and “leftover boxes” with enjambment. A first person view is interesting in this poem because it shows how an individual is personally affected by a law of physics; it implies that this force of nature impacts not only forests, cities and other large landscapes, but each and every single person that exists (or has existed) on the face of the earth. The fact that McGough decided to leave out a rhyme scheme can be interpreted as displaying how gravity, although it abides by the laws of physics and motion, has no regard for human affairs and the troubles that it causes, including the death of one of the author’s closest friends and the man he loves. Lastly, enjambment is a key element of this poem by forcing the reader to continue reading the next line and convincing them to read the rest of the work. The last line of the third stanza contains an excellent example of this poetic device, as it cuts off the word “awkwardly” after the first syllable and places the rest of it in the next stanza. “Now, seven stones lighter, his wife carries him aw-/Kwardly from room to room.” This isn’t very common in any poet’s writing, and it is another example of how gravity pulls things down, like the next few syllables in the word and the reader’s eyes as they continue down the page.

This poem is significant because it shows that McGough chose to write about more serious things than the first day of school, Batman and Robin, and Mrs. Moon. McGough’s works tended to sound like they were written for children most of the time, so taking a break from that and delving into the realms of dark, relatively somber poetry is a refreshing turn of events for him. Also, it shows his mother’s influence in a new way. His mother encouraged him to participate in writing competitions and supplied ideas for imagery to include in his works, and the imagery in this poem is very unique and could imply that he thought back to what his mother may have suggested before publishing this poem.

Patten’s “In the Dark” fits the style of this era because it uses rhetorical questions to explain the main point, includes snapshots of a single person’s life to display all the facets of death, and takes advantage of the flexibility of free verse. The main point of this poem is to uncover how long a man lives, so using rhetorical questions to get the reader into the correct mindset of discovering the end of the poem before it is revealed is a clever strategy to integrate into this work. Again, similar to how McGough used first person in “Defying Gravity,” using points from a single man’s life makes the poem seem more personal and answers the question of this poem in a much more relatable way. “How long does a man spend living or dying?And what do we mean when we say: “‘Gone forever’?” Since people reading the poem are alive at the moment that the poem is being read, helping the reader to envision the parts of another person’s life assists them in delving in the nooks and crannies of how to answer this question. Finally, using free verse develops a feeling of continuity that can be felt in a single person’s life; although a person’s life may have easily distinguished chapters, they are all part of one book, similar to how Patten has decided to put all of the lines of this poem into a single stanza (which can be found in an anthology).

“In the Dark” is a valuable contribution to this era because it shows that writing about daily life needs to include all the parts of life, which includes the deaths of loved ones. This era was about writing about all of the events that took place in an average person’s life; death is always a part of life. This poem shows that even though someone dies, you can remember their legacy through all of the distinct, seemingly small memories you may still have of them. It also explains that eventually, the grieving process will end, allowing someone to remember a deceased person in a new light while also being able to move on with their own life.

Henri’s “Poem in Memoriam of T.S. Eliot” adheres to this style by using allusions to several of Eliot’s poems, forgoing the use of punctuation, and adding contrast to deepen the connection between these two poets. The imagery that these allusions to Eliot’s poems produce develop the connection that is expanded upon later in the poem; some of them include the coffee spoon reference to “The Lovesong of J Alfred Prufrock” and the familiar compound ghost connection in “Little Gidding.” Not including a lot of punctuation also exemplifies enjambment and is similar to quite a few of Eliot’s poems, such as “The Waste Land” and “Sweeny Among the Nightingales.” “The first signs of spring in plastic daffodils/on city counters” is an example of this.

This poem written by Henri is important because it shows that death can be taken to the personal level of the writer. The last two poems by McGough and Patten show the level of death on the reader’s life, and this poem shows how Henri is personally affected by it. Many of Henri’s “Memoriam” poems are some of the best of his works because of this and how he intertwines allusions, imagery, and other descriptive techniques.

McGough, Patten, and Henri embody the style of this era by reintroducing poetry to the masses by making it easy to understand while also writing about real life troubles and quandaries. There are very distinctive qualities that can be attributed to the poets of this era, and some of them include using free verse or loose quatrains, utilizing euphemisms to expand on imagery that has been set up, integrating enjambments in a new way, and reinventing the meanings of words. Although these poets aren’t performing their pieces today, their legacy is still being remembered with the availability of recordings on the internet. McGough is still coming up with witty quotes and hopefully won’t stop anytime soon.

Comparison of Patten’s ‘The Armada’ and Duran’s ‘Coat’

Like Duran’s poem ‘Coat”, Patten’s ‘The Armada’ is written as an anecdote, and recounts a childhood memory of Patten’s mother. He writes about a time when he played with toy boats in a pond, and compares this to the death of his mother.

Like Duran, Patten writes in the past tense, creating a sense of time which separates both of the poets from their childhood, and the memories of their mothers. Patten opens his poem with the phrase ‘long, long ago’, which mimics the opening of a fairy-tale. This perhaps suggests that he longs for his childhood spent with his mother, as it is like a perfect fairy-tale, but also creates a dream-like tone, as it no longer feels real to him. However, the fact that he ends his poem with the same line creates the idea of a recurring cycle of life, and so the death of his mother brings the beginning of new life, and a childhood for someone else.

Unlike Duran, who is mostly passive and inactive in her poem, only ‘staying against’ her mother, Patten ‘launched a child’s armada across a pond. The use of the semantic field of war with the words ‘armada’ and ‘fortress’ suggests that, unlike Duran, who hid from life ‘behind’ her mother, Patten viewed life as a battle in which he was an active participant. The fact that his ‘fortress’ is ‘broken’ suggests that, unlike Duran, who is protected by her mother, Patten felt that he was vulnerable to the dangers of life. Whilst Duran uses the weather to represent the harsh realities of the world, Patten writes that his boats were set ‘on flame’ by the sunset. Perhaps this is a metaphor for the way in which nature destroys life, as well as beginning it. This s supported by the way in which he returns to this metaphor at the end of the poem, saying that, as his mother dies, his ‘heart burned as that armada burned’. Here the imagery of ‘fire’ perhaps represents emotion and grief, as well as the destruction of life.

The position in which the poets place their mothers in relation to themselves is also in sharp contrast. Whilst Duran stood ‘just behind’ her mother, suggesting that it was her mother who protected her, Patten writes that his mother ‘stood behind’ him, suggesting perhaps that, even as a child, he felt that he had to protect his mother. Similarly, Patten writes that his mother’s ‘thin overcoat’ was ‘flapping’. This contrasts with Duran’s use of the metaphor of clothes for protection. The fact that his mother’s clothes are ‘thin’ suggests that she is vulnerable, and so in need of protection from her son. The onomatopoeic ‘flapping’ also helps to create a strong sense of place.

Neither of the poets mention a father in their poems. Perhaps in Duran’s case this is simply because she felt no need to mention him, as her mother offered enough protection and comfort, and so his presence was irrelevant. However, Patten writes that his mother was ‘alone’, creating the impression that she struggled as a single mother, adding to the idea of vulnerability. This effect is added to when Patten describes her as ‘old at twenty-three’, suggesting that his mother was unable to have the childhood that she gave him, something which makes me feel sad. He suggests also that his mother had no happiness in life, as she is ‘impatient to be going’. As well as her desire to leave the pond where her son is playing, this may also refer to her desire for her life to end, as it finally does in the second part of the poem. The fact that she dies when her son is an adult, instead of ending her life herself perhaps indicates her loyalty and love for her son, something which makes me think about how much my own mother has sacrificed in caring for me.

Whilst Duran alludes to the death of her mother when she refers to her as ‘mortal’, Patten dedicates a large part of his poem to describing the death of his mother. He compares her ‘cool skin’ to the ‘cool surface’ of the pond which he played by as a child. This adds to the idea of a recurring cycle of life, but perhaps also suggest that his mother’s death is part of nature, just as the pond which he sent out an armada to conquer is part of nature also. The fact that his armada was unable to conquer the pond, as it returns in the form of his dying mother’s skin, perhaps reflects his realisation that he is unable to conquer death.

Like Duran with her phrase ‘mortal mother’, Patten creates the impression that life is fleeting when he repeats the superlative ‘smallest’, writing that he has been separated from his mother by the ‘smallest whisper of death’. This reminds me of my mother’s, as well as my own, vulnerability, and how easy it is for our lives to be changed by death.

Like ‘Coat’, ‘The Armada’ is structured in one single stanza, which perhaps reflects the unbroken and continuous cycle of life. The irregular line lengths are perhaps intended to represent the ripples in the pond by which Patten played, and so is almost a concrete poem.